Michael Snow,
Here Comes the Skelly
(Irish Eyes, 1999)

Michael Snow is no newcomer to the business of music, having been one of the movers and shakers in the Nashville alternative music scene for some 30 years and more. His efforts have focused along the folk and singer-songwriter fringes of the country mainstream, and his years in the business bring a host of respected players to this effort -- among them, Clive Gregson, and Pat McInerney and Ron DeLa Vega from Nanci Griffith's band.

It's a long way from his Liverpool roots for Snow, with stops along the way to work with John Lennon, Edwin Starr, Ben E. King, Chuck Berry and many others. A songwriter since the late 1960s, his work has been recorded by artists as diverse as Julie Andrews, Earl Scruggs and Ray Stevens. In the '90s, Snow comes full circle to ancestral musical roots with a full exploration of the possibilities of Celtic music. His first recorded offering in this exploration is Here Comes the Skelly.

The disc opens with a rousing a capella calling-on, meant to brace the listener for the Skelly (local slang for the Irish growing up in Liverpool), and given life in the narrative person of Snow, whose musical journey begins with "Waters I've Known," a march and paen to the sea and what flows from it. Our next stop is at "Haurran's (Hoedown) House," an inn of cross-cultural charm where the impact of Celtic tradition on the fiddle music of the southern Appalachians is readily apparent. The next offering, "Skelly Scouse," tracks as a non-defensive homage to the Irish in Liverpool, and more particularly to the Beatles, and what they meant to the music, there and around the world.

The tempo changes with "More Wear and Tear," almost a waltz or slow two-step, and changes yet again with "Billow and Curve," the first bit of rambunctuous up-tempo on the disc. Hard on the heels of this reel is the sweet lament, "Old Wanderlust," for my money, the best realized tune on the album. Again shifting gears, we are served "Blue Heron," a jig in praise of immigrant miners, and an odd lament, "Ballinasloe," which takes a curious jog into samba territory with Link Wray along for the ride.

Snow turns to the confessional in "Irish Girls," a sweet but quirky ballad, and sings a touching valentine to the town on the Liffey in "Lovely in Dublin, Amen" (in which song there is some pretty fine figuring in a whistle break). The song "Dawning of the Day" is a remembrance of Nicky Hopkins, sung with a lot of respect and heart, and the set closer, "Fly Me Home," features the curious combination of pretty upbeat lyrics trapped in some pretty lethargic music. The disc closes as it began, with the a capella lyrics meant to complete the concept behind this offering.

What to make of all this? Snow's voice is all rough and edgy, perfect for the conceit of the disc, and the talent (both writing and performance) brought to the table on this project is formidable. I was generally impressed, and the one thing which keeps me from an unqualified ringing endorsement of this album is that I thought the tempos on virtually all of the songs were too slow. It seemed to drag when it needed to spring, and even those songs meant to be more elegiac seemed to bog down.

Still, I encourage you to seek this disc out. In it you will be exposed to a formidable talent, whose best efforts on his own behalf almost surely lie ahead.

[ by Gilbert Head ]